The Torrey Canyon – 1967

It seems inconceivable that a well-found ship could run aground in daylight and good weather. Famously, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell managed it in 1707 when he wrecked his whole fleet on the rocks of the Scilly Isles after making a navigational mistake – but he had no way to determine his longitude. In the same waters 260 years later, the Torrey Canyon had no such excuse. Torrey Canyon was one of the first ‘supertankers’, a 300 m (930 ft) giant laden with 119,000 tons of Kuwaiti crude oil bound for Milford Haven. It had every navigational aid on board, except common sense.

Torrey Canyon’s Captain changed course to pass between the Scilly Isles and the mainland in a fit of pique because his new Third Officer had presumed to take the more usual seaward route to Milford without consulting him. Newly awake, distracted, the Captain then initiated a series of farcically minor errors of command and interpretation. After he failed to disengage the automatic helm properly, he was left spinning the useless wheel at the vital moment. Correcting the mistake was impossible. The huge ship raced at over 16 knots onto Pollard’s Rock, one of the Seven Stones reef. Six reinforced internal tanks ruptured, but the Torrey Canyon was held fast even after her back broke and the heavy swell pushed a vast oil slick towards both Cornwall and France. Nothing like it had ever happened before. The Prime Minister ordered RAF bombers to finish her off and bum the oil. The use of 42,450 kg (1,000 lb) bombs and 1,350 kg (3,000 lb) of napalm partially succeeded, but over three months huge tracts of coastline were ruined as thick, toxic sludge continued to drift ashore.

The secondary disaster was the damage caused by the remedial detergents. Infinitely more toxic than anything in use today, they were used in innocence but caused more serious and enduring damage than the oil itself.

When: March 18 1967

Where: The Seven Stones, Scilly Isles, UK

Death toll: One Dutch salvage worker was killed. Otherwise the damage was environmental, and on a colossal scale. Around 190 km (119 mi) of Cornwall’s, and 80 km (50 mi) of Brittany’s coastlines were drenched in red-brown sludge that killed at least 60,000 seabirds, and possibly three times as many. Regular forms of tourism suffered for years, even though eco-tourism got a kick-start (and a name) from volunteers who flocked to help on both sides of the Channel. More significantly, the disaster prompted international conventions on the use of the sea, pollution, and clean-up operations that have fundamentally changed maritime law.

You should know: The systems on ships’ bridges have been modified to reduce the sort of mistakes made by the Captain of the Torrey Canyon. Royal Navy ships are now fitted with a device called a Torrey Canyon switch’ that cancels the automatic helm mechanism when the wheel is rotated more than 15 degrees.

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